Ezra paced the room, uncommonly anxious as he stopped first to stare at the man on the bed and then out of the window of Nathan's room above the livery. It was unusual to have snow this far south but this Christmas time was determined to be different from all others in all ways. The dust and mud had turned to snow and slush and everyone was moving quickly, wrapped in layers of clothing as they lowered their faces against the cold wind blowing more snow along main street. Ezra's experiences of the Season were mixed at best, recalling Christmas spent in both grand surroundings and miserable conditions depending on whom his mother had conned and whether her subterfuges had been foiled. No matter which, Christmases had always been lonely times regardless of the number of persons surrounding him, until he arrived in this small town.
The days were short, and the sun had set when he caught the reflection of light glinting off shiny glass baubles on Mrs Potter's small Christmas tree. It was little more than a few dry twigs bound together with ribbon and bows, reminding him of his earlier plans to visit Mrs. Potter's fine establishment in the hope of finding some small token for each of the men he held in respect, to renew the bonds of friendship. He had wanted to find one special gift in particular for a special person, for a man who had held his heart from that day in the Seminole village when he had forgiven Ezra for running out on them - on him.
Ezra's thoughts flicked back to a few hours earlier.
He had not long risen from his bed, and although dressed, he was shivering by his window above the saloon, looking out at the cold scene when he saw Chris's arrival, wondering if his near constant wishes and thoughts of this man had finally conjured him. All such thoughts of love slipped his mind when he saw Chris apparently slumped across the neck of his horse, looking barely conscious.
Chris had ridden out days ago, looking for respite at this particular time of the year when memories of past Christmases and happier times seemed to send most people either maudlin with loss or far too merry with expectation. Yet he always returned on Christmas morning to share the day with Ezra... and the others. Not Christmas Eve. His arrival now was both unexpected and unsettling, and as Ezra watched, Chris's horse walked slowly along main street, eventually stopping outside the livery at the end of the town. Instead of dismounting, Chris slid sideways from the saddle to land heavily on the ground, unmoving.
Ezra barely noticed the cold air as he raced from his room, reaching Chris only moments after the livery master. Between them they rolled Chris onto his back, seeing the blood soaking from a makeshift bandage at his side, almost unnoticeable beneath the duster and against his darker pants until it touched the white snow and turned it red. His skin was almost as white as the pristine snow lying on the street, and seemed just as cold. Buck arrived and between them they carried Chris up the stairs to Nathan's rooms while Tiny tended to Chris's horse.
Stripping off the duster and drawing back the clothing revealed the true extent of Chris's injury. The gash, though shallow, was a fiery red, inflamed and infected. Buck had lit out immediately, calling on Josiah's help before riding off to the Seminole village to fetch Nathan.
Mrs. Potter boiled water while Josiah pulled clean cloth from Nathan's medical drawers, leaving Ezra to clean the wound as best he could while Josiah searched for the herbs and ingredients needed to make a poultice to draw out the infection and tea to ease the fever.
"Should have paid greater attention to Nathan," Josiah rumbled. "And learned the basics of his skills."
An hour later Josiah left Chris in Ezra's hands while he sought an answer in prayer. Ezra mopped Chris's fevered brow, ensuring the bonds lightly restraining his wrists and ankles to the bed were both firm but comfortable as Chris writhed and cried out in delirium. His words were slurred and low but Ezra made them out easily, recognizing his name spoken over and over.
"Ezra... Ezra... Don't leave me again. Don't go. Don't go."
"I am right here, Mr. Larabee." He looked down into fever-bright green eyes.
"Ezra... don't leave. Need you to stay.... with me."
"I assure you I have no intention of abandoning you... Chris." He wrung out the cloth once more and patted Chris's forehead, noting the fever-red of his cheeks on an otherwise deathly pale face.
"Need you," he whispered hoarsely, before coughing.
Ezra fed him a trickle of the tea Josiah had steeped from Nathan's medical supplies, one that was supposed to lower fevers and aid rest. He laid Chris's head back down on the pillow gently and noticed the bright eyes staring right at him.
"Ezra," Chris whispered, growing agitated when he could not raise his hands.
Ezra calmed him by stroking his sweat-matted hair. "I am still here, Chris. I will not leave you."
The words had deeper meaning than simply a person tending to a sick friend, though Ezra knew he could never reveal his hidden love for the man lying before him. He had little hope of his affections being reciprocated no matter how ardently he wished even on this particular night where wishes were fabled to be granted. Instead he wished for Chris's recovery, afraid of the blood poisoning that might take Chris before the cold light of a new day.
A blast of cold air from the door opening heralded Nathan's arrival, and Ezra eagerly stepped aside to allow their more medically knowledgeable friend to tend to his patient. No one remarked when Ezra remained, assisting Nathan in this task, only seeking rest when Chris's fever broke in the early hours of Christmas morning.
When finally Ezra awoke he found green eyes, heavy with fatigue and illness, watching him from the bed. He drew closer when Chris beckoned - hands now unrestrained - leaning down to catch the quiet words.
"You kept your promise."
Ezra thought he felt the brush of lips against his cheek, and when he pulled back slightly to meet Chris's eyes, he knew he had not been mistaken, with Chris's expression laid bare for all to see. Fortunately, there was only Ezra in the room, and Chris's expression shuttered to normalcy when Nathan returned.
Tamping down on his feelings of joy, Ezra sat back and watched as Nathan fussed over Chris. It was Christmas, and his wish of so many years had finally come true.